Melbourne plans $11b rail system to relieve congestion

Underground network will ease strain on city facing growing population pressures

Australia's second-largest city Melbourne has plans for a new A$10.9 billion (S$11.1 billion) underground rail network - including two 9km tunnels beneath the Central Business District - to cope with growing population pressures by providing services likened to those in global cities including Singapore.

The so-called "mega-project", which will include five new railway stations, is designed to ease congestion in the city of 4.5 million people. It is the largest transport project in the history of the state of Victoria.

State Premier Daniel Andrews has insisted that major construction will begin next year, saying the project was crucial to addressing traffic congestion and expanding public transport capacity.

The project, called Melbourne Metro Rail, will involve 65 new seven-car trains and will add capacity for 39,000 commuters during the two-hour morning and evening peak travel times.

"The metro (project) will create the international-style train system we need, and we're not wasting a moment," said Mr Andrews in a statement on June 22.

He has likened the project's frequent "turn up and go" train services to those in London, Paris, New York and Singapore, saying passengers will not need to use timetables.

The project is due to be fully completed by 2026. Two of the new stations will be in the CBD and three nearby, including one in Parkville which will provide direct access to the University of Melbourne.

Melbourne has repeatedly been named the world's most liveable city by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which has rated it first in its liveability rankings for each of the past five years.

The ratings are based on factors such as stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure. Singapore was ranked 49th last year on the index of 140 cities.

Despite - or perhaps because of - Melbourne's strong liveability rating, it faces serious population pressures.

The city is Australia's fastest-growing, adding 91,000 people last year, with large influxes of migrants from India, Sri Lanka, China, Britain, New Zealand, Vietnam, Greece and Italy. Its growth rate last year was 2.1 per cent, compared with 1.7 per cent for Australia's largest city, Sydney.

But the population growth has left the city's rail system struggling to meet demand, with some stations in the CBD already at full capacity. According to a report by the state government in February, average weekday commutes on metropolitan trains will increase from 750,000 to 1.5 million in the next 15 years.

"In the last decade, Melbourne has experienced unprecedented public transport growth, putting considerable strain on a system which is now approaching capacity," the report said.

Much of Melbourne's growth has been in the sprawling outskirts and city centre, where the population is due to double to 230,000 in the next fifteen years. The city centre has had a burst of high-rise residential construction, but this has added to the need for more transport options.

The rail project has been largely welcomed, despite concerns about major disruptions to the city centre during the construction phase. Critics have also attacked the failure to include a sixth station in the popular shopping district of South Yarra - a move the government said would be too expensive.

The funding model has critics, too. In April, Victoria's Treasurer Tim Pallas pledged that the state would largely fund the project, saying it would allow Melbourne to "take its place among the great public transport cities of the world". About A$1.9 billion of funding is due to come from private investment.

But Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is a staunch advocate of public transport, criticised the network's business model, saying Victoria's government could have done more to secure private funding.

He has urged the state to try to exploit the increased property values expected from the additional rail infrastructure.

"We have been very old-fashioned in the way we have looked at urban infrastructure, particularly rail infrastructure in Australia," he said in April.

Victoria's government insisted it was already seeking to capitalise on the rail project, pointing to plans for a 25,000-person residential precinct around a new station in Arden.

Other cities in Australia are also embarking on large-scale public transport projects. Sydney,with almost five million people, is facing growing congestion and is building a new standalone railway network and a new light rail system.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline Melbourne plans $11b rail system to relieve congestion. Subscribe